Assuring our Hearts before God
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God (1 John 5:19, ESV)1
Throughout his first letter John is answering the question – what does genuine Christianity look like? Earlier he has given a number of tests that we can apply to other people to find out whether their Christian profession is true. But here John is particularly dealing with Christians who may be troubled about whether they themselves really are Christians. And this is an extremely common pastoral problem.
Christians often suffer from a lack of assurance
There is much more about this subject than we can say here, but this is one most important aspect. In verse 19 John refers to the level of assurance in our hearts. This is to be distinguished from our actual standing before God. Two people might walk across the same bridge. The bridge is very strong and can hold several hundred people, but take these two contrasting individuals. One of them knows that the bridge is very strong and will hold him easily, so he gets across without a worry. But the other is anxious and nervous – what if the bridge crumbles while I’m on it? What if a flood suddenly sweeps down the river and carries me away? In the end, he too will get across, but his journey will be far less comfortable. And so a believer can be saved without being assured that he is saved. This is not only possible, but something that we can readily observe. Some people seem to be particularly prone to a lack of assurance. It can be a matter of temperament. People of a generally nervous disposition are more likely to have a weak level of assurance. We can even associate it with national characteristics, but we won’t proceed too much further in that direction for the time being!
Or it can simply be a consequence of certain emphases in the ministry we receive. Sometimes assurance can be spoken about in such lofty terms that it almost seems to be some kind of second blessing. We hear that a certain individual was saved in 1965 and she received assurance in 1975! The impression might be given that there are two tiers of Christians, the lower level of unassured Christians, and the higher level of assured Christians. Furthermore, it can sometimes seem that this assurance is something that, once given, never diminishes. All we can say here is that we have to be extremely careful. Some people may have glowing testimonies of this kind, but there are many, perhaps most, for whom assurance is something that fluctuates.
And yet we need to appreciate that a believer should never be satisfied with a lack of assurance. Assurance is a sign of spiritual health, and a lack of assurance is a mark of spiritual sickness. This passage is positively urging us to work towards a greater level of assurance. We shouldn’t simply say, ‘it’s the way I am and I’ve got to live with it’. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is concerned about saving souls, about delivering them from sin, distrust and unbelief. In this passage, as elsewhere, there is clear practical wisdom about how to deal with this problem. The work of the Christian ministry needs to be about, in a large measure, strengthening the assurance of believers who may be struggling.
Our level of assurance is affected by our conscience before God
In this passage we see a specific way in which our peace and assurance are assailed. It is via the turmoil of a condemned heart, or if we put it into more familiar terms, a troubled conscience. Our heart will often condemn us. There is a recognition here on John’s part that this is a frequent and recurring experience. There is a warfare being waged within us. Our heart tells us that we have failed or that we have sinned. Sometimes our heart is right and we justly feel ashamed; the Word of God has convicted us. At other times it might be that Satan, the accuser of the brethren, comes and feeds us with lies. But whatever the source of this condemnation, we all know what it feels like, and perhaps we also know something of how it affects our level of assurance.
True faith means the pursuing of a conscience without offence before God and man. The Scriptures always set the highest premium on the value of the believer’s conscience. A great part of our Christian conduct is in safeguarding our own conscience and the conscience of others and there is nothing more detrimental to Christian assurance than a troubled conscience. In Acts 24:16 Paul, having spoken of the gospel that he believed, the hope that he had, went on to say ‘So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.’ The importance of conscience in Christian ministry is spelled out by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:5, in terms very similar to what we have here: ‘The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.’
And the point is that these last two things – ‘a good conscience and a sincere faith’ – stand or fall together. Robert Candlish, author of a fine commentary on 1 John, puts it very simply: ‘There can be no faith where there is not conscience . . . I cannot look God in the face if I cannot look myself in the face’2. Do you know what I mean when I talk about a level of spirituality, a level of Christianity, that is shallow, formal and lifeless? If we look at this letter, we see that John is exhorting his readers to have a spirit without guile. What do we mean by this lack of guile? It means to have a true, honest, sincere evaluation of ourselves before God. It is to flee from every mere appearance of Christianity, everything which is sham and hypocritical. There is nothing more opposed to true Christian faith that something which stops at the mere formal and conventional.
Psalm 32 is a powerful commentary on exactly this kind of spiritual experience. We can see the journey which David makes in the first seven verses. In verse 2, the Authorised Version talks about the blessedness of the man ‘in whose spirit there is no guile’. It was, for a while, this ‘guile’ that made David silent. He couldn’t pray; he had a sense of spiritual paralysis that prevented him from being open and frank before the Lord. His bones wasted away, he groaned, his strength was dried up like the Judean desert in a summer drought. But when at last he was able to pray, to open his heart and his mouth, and freely confess his sins before the Lord, it was like the breaking of a shower from heaven. Here came refreshment, life and peace.
The love shown between believers is one of the most important marks of genuine Christian faith. This is the specific issue which John is dealing with here. Verses 19 to 24 do seem to be looking back to verse 18; verse 18 is the ‘this’ of verse 19. How shall we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before God? One way is by boldly and deliberately engaging in acts of love – not only words, the point is not in empty words – but in deeds. What is more, we are urged to love in truth. Do we see the match between the ‘truth’ of verse 18 and that of verse 19? Weak and hypocritical love, mere talk about love with no corresponding actions or integrity, will damage our conscience and consequently our assurance.
The verses in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:23-24, can be quoted in this context: ‘So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’ Quite often this verse is used in the context of the Lord’s Supper. Don’t take the bread and wine if there is any lingering enmity between you and a brother in the Lord. But there is a more general application than that. We need to strive to have a good conscience before the Lord in terms of all our relationships with other believers, all the time. If our relationships with other Christians are characterised by shiftiness, reserve or duplicity, how can our consciences be right before God?
Think of Peter’s frame of mind when he had just denied the Lord Jesus Christ. He was a true believer in his Saviour, but he had just acted most unlike a true believer. We can see how bitter and distressed he was. Any sense of joy and peace was far removed from him. There was absolutely no way he could assure his heart before God. What would Peter have said if we’d asked him how things were going with him at the time?
In this whole matter of love towards other believers, we need an large-hearted and open-handed freedom, a Christlike humility and a Spirit-filled love and warmth, which does not merely talk but which is active and altogether sincere.
God is greater than our hearts
How can a weak level of assurance be increased? Does this passage help us? Please let us all be clear – we are not talking here about guilt, actual guilt and condemnation that prevents us from being saved. We are talking about that reserve, that sense of holding back from a full, free dealing of our souls with God and with other believers, that robs us of the peace of our salvation.
God is greater than our hearts. We need to have our eyes lifted far above the state of our hearts and to see how freely and graciously he has worked our salvation. We need release from a spirit of servile bondage to our own dull and gloomy frames of mind, and to receive the Holy Spirit’s energies and freedom. The Lord in his grace ministers to us when we are in this state. He comes and reminds us that he is infinitely greater than our hearts. He reminds us that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses and purifies us, even our troubled consciences. He heals the backslider; he restores poor fallen Peter. We must never say that the Lord himself desires to keep full and free assurance and peace from us. Aren’t all the promises of Scripture designed to lead us into that peace? God is not a crumbling bridge that we might not be able to trust!
How are things in your own individual spiritual life? How are you conversing with God? Are you full and free, keeping short accounts, leaving no stone unturned? You know how it is when you have a wholly genuine and meaningful relationship with another human being. You can talk about anything in the confidence that this person will be warm, accepting, unconditionally loving. That is how we must be before the Lord as well as before one another. There must be no stiffness, no false pride, no sense of self-justification, but a casting of ourselves into his grace. This way of thinking and acting needs to become habitual practice for us all. This is how our hearts will be assured and strengthened in the love of God. We need to open up the dark and brooding recesses of our hearts to him.
What is the cure for a troubled conscience? It is, as it says here, that God is greater than our consciences, than our hearts – and to acknowledge that before him. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can hide from him. To act in this way is not to walk in the light, but to deceive ourselves. This takes us back to the beginning of the letter. We cannot claim that we are without sin, for if we do that ‘we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Candlish again:
It is peace, immediate, full, free, unreserved, that you are eager to have. No truce or compromise will content you now. You cannot be too completely reconciled to God, or brought into friendship too intimate, or fellowship too close and confidential, with your Father in heaven3.
- See also John Brentnall’s article, quoting John Newton on this verse.
- Robert Candlish, 1 John, a Geneva series commentary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), p. 318.
- ibid. p. 322.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church. He is one of the speakers at the Banner of Truth Youth Conference in April 2010 in Leicester.
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